Is the Peace Process Dead?

(Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs VI : 2 (2012

Colette Avital is a veteran of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Among her overseas postings, she served as ambassador to Portugal (1988–92) and consul general in New York (1992–96). She was a member of the 15th, 16th and 17th Knessets and deputy speaker of the house. Ambassador Avital is currently the director-general of the Educational Center of the Berl Katznelson Foundation and chairperson of the board of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

For some time now, Israel has enjoyed a period of calm on its eastern border. Acts of terrorism have virtually stopped. The Palestinians are busy building their economy and their public institutions; Palestinian politics are crippled by the division between two separate leaderships and repeated efforts to promote reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Israelis, for their part, are concerned with the social protest movement and its outcome; some are already preparing for the next elections. The Iranian nuclear threat looms dark on the horizon. The Arab spring has turned into an Arab winter and democracy is not around the corner. The daily slaughter in Syria is a sad reminder that we live in a dangerous area. So, the general message of the current Israeli government is: "now is not the time to act. Let us sit tight and wait."

The Palestinian–Israeli peace process has been stymied for twelve years now, ever since the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the subsequent eruption of the violent Second Intifada that same year.

Whenever the Middle East peace process undergoes one of its periodic hiccups, there are calls for a more active US role. Various American administrations have indeed attempted to generate plans and bring the sides back to the table. In the past twelve years we have seen secretaries of state come and go, and we have been blessed with the Zinni and Mitchell missions. Late in his term President Bush issued the Road Map, and subsequently launched the Annapolis process—all to no avail. And even though President Obama vowed, shortly after he was elected, to be more proactive in the Israeli–Arab conflict, he approaches the end of his current term of office with no concrete progress in sight.

Paradoxically, though positive changes have taken place, the peace process is stuck. Compared to public opinion forty years ago, when the idea of talking to the PLO or of creating a Palestinian state was anathema, the attitude of most Israelis has radically evolved. Successive prime ministers, regardless of their ideological background, have all reached the same conclusion: In order to maintain Israel's national identity and solve the conflict, the creation of a Palestinian state is a necessity. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the "father of the settlements," declared that "the occupation must end." Having reached the conclusion that keeping the Gaza Strip did not contribute to Israel's security, he ordered a unilateral disengagement and the evacuation of all settlers. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went even further. He understood that time does not work in favor of either the Israelis or the Palestinians, hence the urgency of creating a Palestinian State. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have recognized the necessity of a two-state solution, and said as much in his June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University. But it is clear that he does not share the same sense of urgency as his predecessor with regard to reaching an agreement with the Palestinian leadership.

On the Palestinian side, for many years, acceptance of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in 22 percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine was unthinkable. Today, the two-state solution is widely accepted among Israelis and Palestinians. Even in Israeli right-wing circles, many are now resigned to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Public opinion polls have consistently shown that majorities on both sides support this solution, loosely based on the Clinton parameters of December 2000. Moreover, a joint poll conducted by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Palestine Centerfor Policy and Survey Research in in Ramallah endorsed mutual recognition of the national identities of the two states after an agreement is reached. Of those surveyed, 70 percent of the Israelis and 63 percent of the Palestinians accepted the concept of Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people.

Yet on both sides there is ambivalence and mistrust. Both Israelis and Palestinians have given up hope that peace may be achieved anytime soon. The expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank; the construction of separate roads; the confiscation of land; the construction of the security fence; the proliferation of checkpoints; and the gradual development of Israeli building projects in east Jerusalem have all led increasing numbers of Palestinians to the conclusion that a two-state solution is no longer possible. Instead, some are proposing a one-state solution, whether in the form of a unitary state or a binational state.

For a long time, Israelis have been told by their leaders that there is no partner on the other side, and even if there were, it could not "deliver." They have been told that there are no "moderate Palestinians." The preconditions set by the Palestinian leaders for the resumption of negotiations are regarded by some as proof that the Palestinians simply do not seek a state of their own. So they, too, have lost faith that peace is in the offing in the immediate future. Employing these same tired arguments while the problems only get worse demands a change of mind and fresh thinking.

Despite the setbacks and frustrations, I believe that a negotiated agreement is both possible and necessary. In fact, it is becoming ever more imperative because of the present turmoil in the Middle East, which may lead to the radicalization of Palestinian society and its leadership. Clearly, President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is quite eager to negotiate a two-state solution and to make many of the concessions this would require. The Israeli public has received ample reassurances regarding his intentions and positions in interviews given to the Israeli press and in documents leaked to, and published by, Wikileaks. In fact, in an interview broadcast on Israel's Channel 2 TV, Abbas promised that an agreement including a consensual and just solution to the refugee problem would put an end to the conflict. World leaders from Barack Obama to Shimon Peres acknowledge that Abbas and his team are indeed serious, worthwhile partners. Thus, the campaign, led by the Israeli right—the so-called "National Camp"—to "Arafatize" a Palestinian leader who opposes acts of violence and is interested in reaching an agreement is unjustified and counterproductive.

The two-state solution is still possible. There is no other acceptable alternative. The proponents of the "sit and wait" philosophy have so far produced nothing tangible. As to those who promote the idea of a binational state, one must remind them of the obvious. Their "option" would mark the end of the Zionist enterprise. Moreover, it would only lead to an escalation of violence since it would not solve the inherent problems of the conflict.

The PLO and Israel came together and began to explore ways of ending the conflict as a result of mutual exhaustion. Each side realized that it could not defeat the other. Theirs was not a commitment to peace in the abstract, but rather recognition of the absence of any other alternative.

The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin came to understand, albeit reluctantly, that a state of (at that time) 5 million Jews living in a sea of several hundred million Muslims needed international acceptance in its quest for security. I am convinced that he was aiming less at a grand peace agreement than at a step-bypainful-step grammar of coexistence. He knew that without such a settlement, the pressures of a hostile environment would leave the Jewish State totally isolated and that notwithstanding its ties with America, Israel's principal ally, it would only get weaker.

The same holds true today, and even more so. Any outburst of violence between Israel and the Palestinians would unleash the hostility of the Arab world against

Israel. The legitimate frustrations of the protesting masses that have so far not seen any improvement in their lives would be turned against us.

For their part, the Palestinians also understood that there is no other way. Israeli– Palestinian negotiations are, no doubt, difficult and complex. Negotiators are obliged to meld territorial and strategic issues—the stuff of diplomacy—with the mandate of ideology, religion, history, identity, and legitimacy. This is of course a most difficult task. The Oslo process may have failed precisely because the protagonists avoided dealing with all the complex, long-term issues. Two sets of illusions emerged from this unwillingness to confront those problems. The Palestinians gambled on their ability to generate maximum international pressure to achieve an end to the occupation and independence in the foreseeable future. The Israelis believed that a state of peace and security would emerge from the agreement, leading to reconciliation, but instead what they received was more violence. Nonetheless, despite their inherent flaws, the Oslo Accords were also a tremendous victory for the peace camps on both sides. They brought about mutual recognition between the PLO and the State of Israel—in effect a long-awaited acknowledgement of each other's political legitimacy, which still exists despite the breakdown of the process itself.

It is true that the peace process has reached a standstill and that there are good reasons to assume that there is no hope. Prime Minister Netanyahu's periodical declarations that he is ready to negotiate are empty words—his actions on the ground belie his statements. Bending the law to legalize settlements built illegally on Palestinian lands and indefinitely postponing rulings of the High Court of Justice confirm the fact that his government is not ready to act.

Only recently, the former chief of Israel's Internal Security Services (Shin Bet), Yuval Diskin, a man who is known and widely respected for his credibility and integrity, confirmed that the Netanyahu government has no intention of advancing an agreement with the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Abu Mazen has also set preconditions for negotiations that the Israeli side cannot accept, thus strengthening the arguments of those who question his intentions. Lately there have been influential voices on both sides urging Abu Mazen to simply dismantle the PA and "and give the keys back to Israel," meaning the de facto return of the territories to Israeli control—and Jerusalem reassuming full responsibility for them. If there has been no real dialogue, no serious negotiations with Israel in the past three years, so the argument goes, why continue the farce?

These are voices of despair to which no heed should be paid. A return of the territories to full Israeli control will only further complicate matters—it will lead to a more intensive thrust to build settlements and ultimately to more violence. Have we not had enough of forty-five years of occupation? Surely, that has never been to what the Jewish people or Zionism—its movement for Jewish national renaissance—has aspired: to keep four million Palestinian Arabs under our control.

So what can be done to lead us out of the stalemate? How about a different, perhaps more effective approach? Perhaps Palestinian statehood should be viewed not as an end result of negotiations, but as a solution to be implemented even before negotiations. That could compel the parties to return to the table. The idea to take Resolution 181—passed in 1947 and calling for the partition of Mandatory Palestine into two states, one "Arab" and one "Jewish"—back to the UN, and to update it may be a way out of the impasse. The new, amended resolution could include elements such as negotiations based on the 1967 lines with border modifications—a formulation that would please the Palestinians— and the recognition of west Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as a benefit for the Israelis.

This would result in a win-win solution that neither Israelis, Palestinians, nor Washington could reject. The parties could then negotiate under a new set of realities. State-to-state negotiations, first on border and security, and later on the more difficult issues such as Jerusalem and refugees, could indeed be more meaningful and binding.

Perhaps one of Israel's biggest failures during the past decade has been to ignore the Arab Peace Initiative, the brainchild of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, which was unanimously adopted by the Arab League in March 2002 at the Arab summit in Beirut. Later, the text approved at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit, transforming an offer initially made by twenty-two Arab countries into a comprehensive regional solution endorsed and supported by fifty-seven countries. The text offers Israel an end to the conflict, security, and full normalization of relations in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, the acceptance of the establishment of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state, and the achievement of a just solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugee problem "to be agreed upon" by both sides. The text represented, and still represents, a sea-change in the Arab world's attitude toward Israel, and acceptance of Israel's permanent presence in the Middle East, as well as a real possibility of reconciliation. It offers a regional solution in a part of the world that is still undergoing radical changes in the internal structure and orientation of its various component parts, and in which public opinion is increasingly becoming relevant.

For Israel, recognitionbytheArabworldofitssecurityconcernsandits commitment to maintain its security is critical. For the Palestinians, the establishment of a sovereign state with the full backing and support of the Arab world may make it easier to accept some of the difficult concessions necessary to strike a deal.

The current situation is akin to a ticking bomb and cannot last forever. What is at stake for Israelis is the loss of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. What is at stake for the Palestinians is the loss of what may be a last chance for a state of their own. What is at stake for the whole region is the possible takeover of the West Bank by more radical forces bent on turning it into an Islamic Republic.

Time is running out. The Arab world is at crossroads. As long as there is any hope of resolving the Arab–Israeli conflict, with the Palestinian issue at its core, the two-state solution remains the best road to peace. A Palestinian democratic state must be created while this is still possible—for the sake of Israel's security and for the sake of Palestinian rights. A Palestinians state might also bring about new, fresh beginnings between Israel and a renascent Arab world.

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